Revealing the tricks of the magician trade
In a world laden with entertainment options, magic still casts a spell. Jeremy Olds meets some Kiwi practitioners.
Late on a Tuesday evening, a mysterious crowd convenes for a top-secret meeting at the Surrey Hotel in Grey Lynn, Auckland. The 15 are part of an exclusive, members-only society, and there's an air of confidentiality as they gather in a room away from prying ears. Yet, anyone standing in the hotel carpark could surmise what was taking place, based on the vehicle number plates.
'I TRICK'. 'C MAGIC'. 'MAGIC 1'.
The 14 men and sole woman inside the hotel belong to the Brotherhood of Auckland Magicians, an elite club for those serious about the practice of ma
gic. Each member has been selected to join by the club's 'inner circle' and, on joining, has placed their hand on a wand and sworn the Magician's Oath:
I, [insert name here], do solemnly swear, at all times, to uphold the traditions of the arts and crafts of Magic, its secrets and its codes of ethics...
In a rare departure from protocol on this Tuesday night, the Brotherhood has permitted an outsider to observe the first half of their monthly meeting.
The evening's theme is: 'Torn, Cut, Mutilated or Destroyed and Restored,' and for an hour the magicians take turns performing a trick they've devised on that subject.
These aren't the young, edgy Las Vegas magicians you'll see on TV, walking across water or flying through the air. All but four are older, white men – the kid's party, cape-wearing, rabbit-out-of-a-hat type.
The first name is called, and up stands none other than Ken Ring, the controversial 'Moon Man' who, in 2011, drew the scorn of John Campbell by claiming to have predicted the Christchurch earthquake. Ring stands before the room and pulls a pair of scissors and a long piece of string from his pocket. He looks to me: "Jeremy, would you come out here for a minute?" he says, and suppressing all impulses to flee, I oblige.
First, Ring says, cut the string in half. I snip. He ties the two pieces back together, then wraps the length around his hand, the knot clasped in his palm. Which side is the knot on?
The left, I hazard.
"You're my subject, and as far as I'm concerned, what you say goes. And in this case, what you say," – he unravels the string to reveal the knot has disappeared – "has actually gone."
The rest of the evening's tricks are of the same calibre. There are newspapers that are torn up and magically reassemble; disappearing handkerchiefs; an umbrella that is wrapped up in a mat and suddenly shredded. It has all the pageantry of a primary school show-and-tell.
The Brotherhood was formed in 1945, and its current president is Alan Watson, a 64-year-old who has worked as a full-time magician since quitting his sales job in his thirties.
Magic is in his DNA, he says – his great-great-uncle Oswald Ashton performed for the troops while serving as a soldier in WWI, and Watson remembers being amazed by his card tricks as a seven-year-old: "As soon as he showed me a trick, I was hooked," he says. "It was only a basic trick, but boy did I think, 'phwoar'." All three of Watson's daughters are magicians and one of his eight grandchildren, too, performs magic. "I think magic runs in families," he says. "It's a lot easier to teach family members than what I call 'outsiders'."
Watson's home on Auckland's North Shore is decorated with signs of his success; a wall of framed awards and letters, and framed copies of the many magazine covers he has graced.
In the 2014 New Year's Honours List, he was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for 'services as a magician'. Watson was chuffed. "It's the first time it's been given for services as a magician. It means that our art form is being recognised," he says. "Normally if anyone in my industry got it, it would be for 'services to entertainment' or something like that. But being so explicit, that's a major."
When he went on stage to accept the medal from Governor-General Jerry Mateparae, Watson thought about pulling a trick on him, but decided against it because it was a serious occasion. He got to speak with Mateparae backstage, after the ceremony. "Of course then I did a bit of magic. He loved it."
Modern magic arrived in New Zealand by ship in April 1855 when Rolla Rossiter, a New York-born magician and circus performer, landed in Auckland. Rossiter was the first working magician to tour and perform the country, although newspapers of the time were vague about his performances. In Conjurors, Cardsharps and Conmen, a recently published history of magic in New Zealand, author Bernard Reid suggests his act likely included the oldest-recorded trick in history: decapitating a bird, before bringing it back to life.
These days, New Zealand has a number of full-time professional magicians who make a living performing tricks.
An hour spent entertaining children for a birthday party can fetch $200. More lucrative are corporate functions, where magicians might perform a specially tailored show, or walk from table to table doing tricks at each. These evenings can yield several thousand dollars. Magic is mostly weekend work, and magicians tend to fit several shows into a day.
"You've got to be a good businessman to be a magician," says Auckland-based Jarred Fell, who, at 25, is one of the country's youngest full-time magicians.
Fell's show includes 'adult humour': "It's dirty magic, gross magic. To be different. Everyone was doing kids magic; there was no one doing adult magic."
In May he performed a sold-out show at the International Comedy Festival, and in September he'll take his dirty tricks – for example, a card you select appearing inside a fake vagina – to the seas, performing on P&O cruise ships for a week at a time.
Is there rivalry between magicians? "I've never thought of magic as competitive," he says. "We just do what we do. We just want to make people have that element of wonder they had as a child, to have that 'how did they do it?' feeling. We just want to entertain."
Next month, a team of illusionists called the Band of Magicians is set to tour New Zealand. The Guardian describes the group as the One Direction of magic, and Kiwi magicians will be standing by their phones. Whenever a movie about magic is released, a TV show with a magician screens, or a circus comes to town, public interest spikes and bookings boom.
Aucklander Mick Peck left his job at his parent's furniture store to become a full-time magician 13 years ago. The 33-year-old says it's a far more popular entertainment option nowadays. "Especially in New Zealand, it was seen as quite low on the totem pole. Everyone respects the guy with a guitar but maybe not the guy with a deck of cards. Now the tide is turning, I think," says Peck.
"When you're doing a corporate event, what's nice now is once people know you're the magician, it's: 'Let's see some magic.' In the past they thought you were going to bother them, force your magic on them. They're more excited to see you now.
"People want to be entertained, people want to forget about their problems, even if it's for half an hour. There's no wonder in people's lives any more. We're all into technology. We don't take time to just chill out. Giving people that sense of wonder, that's what it's all about."
How does a magician devise a trick? Mostly, they develop new takes on old ideas.
In 1918, Harry Houdini made Jennie the eight-foot elephant disappear, and since then countless magicians have adapted his principle of making an object vanish.
While putting an old trick in a new dress is okay, plagiarising an illusion is forbidden. Asking another magician how a trick is performed is frowned on. "You're taught that you never ask," says Watson. "If the guy wants to tell you, he'll tell you. If I see something by a fellow professional, I never ask; that's just bred into me."
Despite the professional ethics, there are magicians out there who copy their competitors, says Wayne Rogers, a 70-year old Auckland magician who performs as 'Chicane'.
For the last 24 years, Rogers has performed magic using props he built himself. One of his earliest creations was a video tape that burst into flame when you took it out of its case.
In the living room of his home in Beach Haven, Auckland, he demonstrates a more recent creation: holding a small paper bag in one hand, he reaches in and pulls out a pole much longer than the bag, and rests it against the wall. He reaches in again and pulls out a second pole, this one longer. Then another. He does this six times until he finally draws out an enormous eight-foot pole.
Rogers sold his products to magicians around the world and with each prop, he sent written instructions that explained the secret to the illusion, how to use it, and presentation tips. When the New Zealand dollar was weak he made a bit of money, but as the dollar grew stronger the profits weren't there. At the same time, competitors started stealing his ideas, manufacturing their own versions. "I was a performer making a prop for myself initially, whereas they were magic manufacturers who had never performed," he says. "There was a big difference: they were making something they didn't know how to use." Last year, he sold the manufacturing rights of his products to American company MAK Magic.
Rogers still performs regularly, but he doesn't do as many kids parties these days. At Christmas he came down with flu-like symptoms, and after doctors tried treating them with antibiotics and a respirator, he went to hospital where he was diagnosed with a cancer in his left lung caused by exposure to asbestos.
"They've been monitoring it since the beginning of the year and it hasn't got any worse," he says. "But it has been a bit of a worry because we don't know what's happening. If it starts to spread, the only form of treatment would be some form of chemotherapy." A reflective Rogers.
He doesn't know if people will still find magic entertaining in the future, but believes it has the same appeal as when he first began reading about it in the mid-50s.
"It's the idea of doing the impossible, of going against the general laws of nature. You create something that doesn't exist."
He places a dice on his glass-top dining table. On each face is a different picture: a square, a plus sign, a star, a circle, a series of squiggly lines, and the symbol for infinity. Rogers holds up a partition blocking his view of the dice, then turns away.
"Just turn it around until you bring one of the designs to the top," he says. "That will be my target. Imagine that design. Visualise it."
I do so, and watch him. He's looking away, so I don't see how he can be cold reading me. He takes a few seconds. "It's the mathematical symbol of infinity. I believe that's the one you've chosen," he says, correctly.
Then, "That could have been a lucky guess, choose another one."
I pick a different image and place it face up, searching for the key to the trick. Is there a mirror somewhere? Was the 'clink' the dice made as I put it on the table a giveaway? I wait for the misdirection or deception, but before I find anything: "You've gone for straight lines. But not something as simple as the plus sign. You've gone for the star." He's right.
"How do you do it?" I ask.
Rogers deflects with a smile. "In this day and age, because of the internet, if [people] are curious, there's practically nothing they can't discover about the secrets of magic. When it comes to secrets, magicians are guarding an empty safe. It comes down to the individual performer and how they present the magic, to take people's minds off just how it's done, and go along with the story evolving in front of them. You set up your scene, you have your script and performer and special effects and you create the story. Magic is like a story."
- Sunday Magazine